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On June 21, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina granted a defendant’s motion for judgment on the pleadings in an FDCPA case concerning dispute responses over a debt. According to the order, the defendants—who represented a bank—sent a letter to the plaintiff attempting to collect an unpaid credit card debt. The letter included information about the creditor, the outstanding balance, and a validation notice. The plaintiff disputed the debt and requested validation of charges, payments, and credits on the account. The defendants responded with another letter, providing information about the original creditor and the balance of the unpaid debt. The plaintiff then sent another letter to the defendants requesting the original account agreement, all original account level documentation, and a “wet ink signature of the contractual obligation.” The defendants filed a collection suit against the plaintiff. The plaintiff filed suit in response, alleging the collection lawsuit violated the FDCPA and North Carolina state law because it “unjustly” condemned and vilified plaintiff for his non-payment of the alleged debt.
The court found that the “[p]laintiff’s allegations misconstrue the obligations of the debt collector in verifying the debt.” The court also noted that the FDCPA did not require the defendants provide “account level documentation,” stating that “[v]erification only requires a showing that the amount demanded ‘is what the creditor is claiming is owed,’ not conclusive proof of the debt.”
On June 23, the FTC issued a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to ban “junk fees” and “bait-and-switch” advertising tactics related to the sale, financing, and leasing of motor vehicles by dealers. Specifically, the NPRM would prohibit dealers from making deceptive advertising claims to entice prospective car buyers. According to the FTC’s announcement, deceptive claims could “include the cost of a vehicle or the terms of financing, the cost of any add-on products or services, whether financing terms are for a lease, the availability of any discounts or rebates, the actual availability of the vehicles being advertised, and whether a financing deal has been finalized, among other areas.” The NPRM would also (i) prohibit dealers from charging junk fees for “fraudulent add-on products” and services that—according to the FTC—do not benefit the consumer; (ii) require clear, written, and informed consent (including the price of the car without any optional add-ons); and (iii) require dealers to provide full, upfront disclosure of costs and conditions, including the true “offering price” (the full price for a vehicle minus only taxes and government fees), as well as any optional add-on fees and key financing terms. Dealers would also be required to maintain records of advertisements and customer transactions. Comments on the NPRM are due 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.
The FTC noted that in the past 10 years, the Commission has brought more than 50 auto-related enforcement actions and helped lead two nationwide law enforcement sweeps including 181 state-level enforcement actions in this space. Despite these efforts, the FTC reported that automobile-related consumer complaints are among the top ten complaint types submitted to the Commission.
On June 6, the CFPB updated its Civil Penalty Fund Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs). The FAQs, among other things: (i) present the Civil Penalty Fund Allocation Schedule; (ii) clarify basic definitions related to CFPB civil money penalties; (iii) clarify when the Bureau will begin to distribute funds; and (iv) explain redress and its difference from payments to victims from the Civil Penalty Fund.
On June 22, the CFPB issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) soliciting information from credit card issuers, consumer groups, and the public regarding credit card late fees and late payments, and card issuers’ revenue and expenses. Under the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 (CARD Act) rules inherited by the CFPB from the Federal Reserve, credit card late fees must be “reasonable and proportional” to the costs incurred by the issuer as a result of a late payment. However, the rules provide for a safe harbor limit that allows banks to charge certain fees, adjusted for inflation, regardless of the costs incurred. Calling the current credit card late fees “excessive,” the Bureau stated it intends to review the “immunity provision” to understand how banks that rely on this safe harbor set their fees and to examine whether banks are escaping enforcement scrutiny “if they set fees at a particular level, even if the fees were not necessary to deter a late payment and generated excess profits.”
In 2010, the Federal Reserve Board approved implementing regulations for the CARD Act that allowed credit card issuers to charge a maximum late fee, plus an additional fee for each late payment within the next six billing cycles (subject to an annual inflation adjustment). As the CFPB reported, the safe harbor limits are currently set at $30 and $41 respectively. The CFPB pointed out that in 2020, credit card companies charged $12 billion in late fee penalties. “Credit card late fees are big revenue generators for card issuers. We want to know how the card issuers determine these fees and whether existing rules are undermining the reforms enacted by Congress over a decade ago,” CFPB Director Rohit Chopra said. Chopra issued a separate statement on the same day discussing the current credit card market, questioning whether it is appropriate for card issuers to receive enforcement immunity if they hike the cost of credit card late fees each year by the rate of inflation. “Do the costs to process late payments really increase with inflation? Or is it more reasonable to expect that costs are going down with further advancements in technology every year?” he asked.
Among other things, the ANPRM requests information relevant to certain CARD Act and Regulation Z provisions related to credit card late fees to “determine whether adjustments are needed.” The CFPB’s areas of inquiry include: (i) factors used by card issuers to determine late fee amounts and how the fee relates to the statement balance; (ii) whether revenue goals play a role in card issuers’ determination of late fees; (iii) what the costs and losses associated with late payments are for card issuers; (iv) the deterrent effects of late fees and whether other consequences are imposed when payments are late; (v) methods used by card issuers to facilitate or encourage timely payments such as autopay and notifications; (vi) how late are most cardholders’ late payments; and (vii) card issuers’ annual revenue and expenses related to their domestic consumer credit card operations. The Bureau stated that public input will inform revisions to Regulation Z, which implements the CARD Act and TILA. Comments on the ANPRM are due July 22.
The ANPRM follows a June 17 Bureau blog post announcing the agency’s intention to review a “host of rules” inherited from other agencies such as the FTC and the Federal Reserve, including the CARD Act. (Covered by InfoBytes here.)
On June 23, the CFPB issued a final rule implementing amendments to the FCRA intended to assist victims of human trafficking. According to the Bureau’s announcement, the final rule prohibits credit reporting agencies (CRAs) from providing reports containing any adverse items of information resulting from human trafficking. The final rule amends Regulation V to implement changes to the FCRA enacted in December 2021 in the “Debt Bondage Repair Act,” which was included within the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022. (Covered by InfoBytes here.)
Among other things, the final rule establishes methods available for trafficking victims to submit documentation to CRAs establishing that they are a survivor of trafficking (including “determinations made by a wide range of entities, self-attestations signed or certified by certain government entities or their delegates, and documents filed in a court where a central issue is whether the person is a victim of trafficking”). The final rule also requires CRAs to block adverse information in consumer reports after receiving such documentation and ensure survivors’ credit information is reported fairly. CRAs will have four business days to block adverse information once it is reported and 25 business days to make a final determination as to the completeness of the documentation. All CRAs, regardless of reach or scope, must comply with the final rule, including both nationwide credit reporting companies and specialty credit reporting companies.
The final rule takes July 25.
On June 17, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California granted final approval of a class action settlement resolving claims that a hospitality company violated the FCRA and various California laws. According to the order, plaintiffs filed a putative class action alleging that the company violated the FCRA by failing to make proper disclosures and obtain proper authorization during its hiring process. Additionally, the plaintiffs claimed that the company’s background check forms were allegedly defective because they “contained information for multiple states for whom background checks were run” in violation of California’s Investigative Consumer Reporting Agencies Act and other California laws. Under the terms of the settlement, the defendant will pay nearly $1.4 million, of which class members will receive $821,714 in total ($63.29 per class member), $10,127 will go towards settlement administration costs, $349,392 will cover attorneys’ fees, and $5,000 will be paid to each of the two named plaintiffs.
On June 15, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed and remanded a district court’s summary judgment ruling in favor of a defendant-appellee law firm, holding that it did not first exhaust all of its efforts to collect from the actual debtor. According to the opinion, the plaintiff’s husband was convicted of embezzlement and willful failure to pay taxes and was sent invoices for his legal fees by another law firm, which he did not pay. The law firm hired the defendant to collect on the debt. The defendant filed a lawsuit against the plaintiff and her husband, arguing under the Ohio’s Necessaries Statute that the husband was liable to third parties for necessaries, such as food, shelter, and clothing that were provided to his wife. An Ohio state court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, and an interlocutory appeal by the defendant was denied. The plaintiff then filed suit against the defendant, alleging that defendant’s underlying suit violated the FDCPA by attempting to collect under the claim that she was liable for her spouse’s debt. The district court granted the defendant’s summary judgment motion, which the plaintiff appealed.
On the appeal, the 6th Circuit found that the defendant did not follow the express commands of the Ohio Supreme Court's 2018 decision in Embassy Healthcare v. Bell, which held that spouses who are not debtors are liable only if the debtor does not have the assets to pay the debt themselves. The 6th Circuit found that the defendant did not satisfy those prerequisites to collect from the plaintiff when it filed a joint-liability suit against her and her husband. Thus, the collection efforts against the spouse who incurred the debt must be exhausted “before attempting to collect from a spouse.” The 6th Circuit reversed the district court’s judgment and remanded for further proceedings with instructions to enter judgment in favor of the plaintiff.
On June 15, CFPB Deputy Director Zixta Martinez spoke before the Consumer Federation of America’s 2022 Consumer Assembly addressing recent research by the Bureau on payday loans, rent-a-bank schemes, overdraft and other banking fees, medical debt, and credit reporting. In her remarks, Martinez first discussed the Bureau’s report on consumer use of state payday loan extended payment plans, which she noted is “the first significant piece of research into extended payment plans” (covered by InfoBytes here). She assured advocates raising concerns about “rent-a-banks” that the Bureau shares those concerns and is focused on this issue. Turning to overdraft and other banking fees, Martinez described overdraft programs as “more like a maze than a service,” which often result in complicated charges being imposed on families who can least afford them, driving them into deeper debt. She pointed to the Bureau’s desire “to move toward a market that works for families and honest financial institutions alike,” recognizing positive shifts made by big banks towards reducing or eliminating such fees as well as the Bureau’s commitment to “returning vigorous competition to this market." Finally, Martinez addressed medical debt, noting that many of the “approximately 43 million Americans with $88 billion in allegedly unpaid medical bills on their credit reports” are trapped in a “bureaucratic doom-loop comprised of the healthcare, insurance, debt collection, and credit reporting industries.” To address this issue, Martinez explained that the Bureau is working broadly across the government and with the non-profit sector to ensure that medical debt does not impact job security, housing, or qualification for affordable credit, and is considering whether it is appropriate for such debt to be included on credit reports at all.
On June 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed a district court’s summary judgment ruling in favor of a defendant lender, holding that a deadline accompanied by a grace period in a loan modification trial plan should be enforced. The plaintiff defaulted on his loan and sought a loan modification. The defendant provided the plaintiff an opportunity to participate in a trial period plan, which required three monthly payments due by January 1, February 1, and March 1, 2019. The trial period plan (TPP) also specified that a payment would be considered timely provided it was made within the month in which it was due. According to the opinion, even though the plaintiff “effectively accepted the terms of the TPP when he made the first trial period payment” within the grace period, the defendant informed him “he was ‘ineligible’ for the loan modification because he failed to comply with the terms of the TPP” and posted his property for foreclosure. The plaintiff sued the defendant for breach of contract, but the district court granted summary judgment to the defendant, declining to “give force to the grace period provisions” and concluding that the plaintiff did not comply with the payment deadlines.
On appeal, the 5th Circuit held that it will enforce a grace period included in a valid, binding contract. “If a lender sets a deadline for payment, but allows the borrower to make that payment anytime ‘in the month in which it is due,’ then the borrower may make that payment anytime in the month in which it is due,” the appellate court wrote. “That’s exactly what [the defendant] offered the borrower here—a deadline accompanied by a grace period. Yet [the defendant] nevertheless contends that we should ignore the grace period.” The 5th Circuit also rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial period plan was not a valid binding contract, pointing out that the text of the TPP made it clear that the defendant intended to be bound by its terms upon the plaintiff’s performance. Deadlines and grace periods co-exist by design, the appellate court explained, noting that “[g]race periods facilitate contractual relationships by making clear which deadlines are aspirational and which are mission-critical.”
On June 15, the OCC issued a proclamation permitting OCC-regulated institutions, at their discretion, to close offices affected by flooding in Montana “for as long as deemed necessary for bank operation or public safety.” The proclamation directs institutions to OCC Bulletin 2012-28 for further guidance on actions they should take in response to natural disasters and other emergency conditions. According to the 2012 Bulletin, only bank offices directly affected by potentially unsafe conditions should close, and institutions should make every effort to reopen as quickly as possible to address customers’ banking needs.
- Jedd R. Bellman to discuss “The CFPB’s crackdown on collection junk fees and the growing anti-CFPB rhetoric” at an Accounts Recovery webinar
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss “Latest on AML regulations and impact of economic sanctions” at a Mortgage Bankers Association webinar
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss “Fundamentals of financial crime compliance” at the Practicing Law Institute
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss “Ongoing CDD: Operational considerations” at NAFCU’s Regulatory Compliance & BSA Seminar